Five key questions for anti-terror investigation
Nine days ago Paul Stephenson, the
deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan police, told the public his
officers had thwarted a plot to commit "mass murder on an unimaginable
Was there any plot at all?
The laws on contempt of court, designed to ensure defendants have a fair trial, make it difficult for counter-terrorism officials to answer this question openly, but security sources have endorsed information coming out of the US as accurate. It is clear that the security services have collected a vast amount of surveillance material over the past year, which they claim points to a plot in the making.
The original tipoff came from a Muslim informant, thought to be close to one of those arrested. In a long surveillance operation, the security services watched suspects at their homes and offices, in meetings they attended and at their mosques and gyms. The operation involved tracing the money that went in and out of their bank accounts and involved the Pakistani security services.
What physical evidence has been gathered?
Officially police will not confirm that any material has been recovered. Sources have told the BBC a suitcase containing bomb components was recovered from woodland being searched in High Wycombe. The BBC also reported last night that police had found martyr videos on laptops in the course of searches. Reports that a gun was discovered in the same woods remain unconfirmed.
The home secretary, John Reid, said this week that "material of a substantial" nature had emerged in the searches of 49 properties in High Wycombe, east London and Birmingham.
The Guardian has established that scientists at the government's forensic explosives laboratory at Fort Halstead, Kent, are examining substances which have been seized during the searches.
What were the explosives at the centre of the alleged plot?
Police sources have confirmed that the alleged plot involved the use of TATP, triacetone triperoxide, which was to be made up from liquids. This has led to speculation that peroxide, acetone and sulphuric acid might have been disguised as bottles of drink to get through hand baggage checks. Forensic explosives experts say if this was the case the liquids would have had to be mixed on the plane to attain the crystallised TATP explosive.
Gerry Murray, of the Forensic Science Agency in Northern Ireland, believes this would be very difficult, particularly if carried out in the toilet of a passenger jet. The liquids have to be kept at freezing point when they are mixed and the TATP crystals must be dried before being ignited, a process which could take several hours.
Some 250g (9oz) of solid TATP would be needed for a substantial explosion, but Mr Murray said if the individual had never made the explosive before he would need a great deal of luck to manufacture it on a plane. Another theory is that pre-made explosives would have been hidden in the false bottom of plastic drinks bottles to foil hand luggage checks.
What can we read into the fact that no one has been charged yet?
Very little. The police and the home secretary have indicated that they believe they have arrested about 19 of the main suspects. Under anti-terrorism legislation, officers are allowed to question suspects for 28 days if approved by a judge, and it is likely the police will want to use the full period before charging anyone. They are unlikely to bring charges against anyone until they have completed thorough searches, which have been going on at 49 separate locations. Anti-terrorism officers will be liaising with the Crown Prosecution Service.
It is likely also that a handful, about five or six, of the suspects will be released without charge.
Was it really necessary to impose such strict security measures at British airports?
It seems unlikely. The threat level in the UK was raised to critical, which means an attack is imminent, after the arrest of what Mr Reid said were all the "main suspects".
Given that, it seems the measures forced upon British airports for several days were unnecessary. Police sources and the government indicated that if they were looking for anyone else those individuals were peripheral to the inquiry. The argument that the disruption of such a plot might spark others to bring forward terrorist actions is debatable.
The security services allege that this was a very specific, well-planned plot, which took nearly a year to put together. It seems unfeasible that others were planning to do the same thing in the same way.
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